Posted by: biblioglobal | May 27, 2014

Sudan Bonus Book

Season of Migration to the North cover

Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies. First published in 1966.

One of the nice things about the academic library and its use of the Library of Congress system is that books are grouped by original language. As a result, I was in the library picking up a copy of The Story of Zahra, my book for Lebanon, when I happened to see The Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih just down the shelf. (Lyrics Alley, my ‘official’ book for Sudan was written in English so it was shelved elsewhere.)

I’d recently read a page listing the 5 favorite Arabic books of a number of knowledgeable people and seen that The Season of Migration to the North occurred repeatedly on many people’s lists. Since it was short and sitting right in front of me, I decided to pick it up too.

The Season of Migration to the North is written from the perspective of a narrator who has returned to Sudan after studying in England. Upon his return to his village, he meets Mustafa, a newcomer who it turns out also studied in London and returned to Sudan. Much of the book revolves around Mustafa and his mysterious past.

I had a hard time reading it at first because of the extremely objectified way in which women were discussed by the characters, particularly because I wasn’t sure for quite a long time whether the author and the book were endorsing that perspective. I think that’s evidence of how well written the book is, but I felt a lot more comfortable with the book once it became clear that the book was criticizing this treatment of women.

There’s a lot of meat to this book on topics of colonialism, gender, race, development and so on, but I think what I will remember it most for is its portrayal of a community when a preventable tragedy occurs. There’s such a sense of dispersed responsibility and guilt, where nearly everyone tries to put the blame onto someone else or to justify themselves with tradition. And yet you can feel that this doesn’t work, that ultimately everyone is uncomfortable with the role that they played.

In between the main plot of the book, there is an interlude where the narrator travels in a truck through the desert from his village to Khartoum. The descriptions of the desert and of the spontaneous gathering of travelers that occurs are some of my favorite parts of the book. But my favorite quote of has to be this:

The driver, who had kept silent the whole day, has now raised his voice in song: a sweet, rippling voice that you can’t imagine is his. He is singing to his car just as the poets of old sang to their camels:

How shapely is your steering-wheel astride its metal stem.

No sleep or rest tonight we’ll have till Sitt Nafour is come.”

My copy of the book had a helpful introduction by Laila Lalami. As is so often the case though, I’d suggest reading it after you read the book, not before. (Why not put these things as afterwords rather than introductions? Or not give away the entirety of the plot if you want it to be an introduction?!) Reading the introduction also reminded me that I really should read/see Othello. There are references to Othello in so many places (including The Season of Migration to the North), that I have picked up bits and pieces of what it is about, but I don’t actually know the complete plot.

I’ve been trying to decide which book I would recommend to someone else doing a book-from-every-country project, this book or Lyrics Alley. In the end I can’t make up my mind. I would say that The Season of Migration to the North was a more challenging and more ‘literary’ read, but that both were very good.

For those that have read this book, what do you make of the ending? Is it hopeful or not?



  1. Hey Biblioglobal I have been reading your blog more often than not with so much delight. I have to read this novel. I do not even have it yet. Will place my order. Thanks for the review.

    • Aww, thanks! I really enjoy reading your blog also. For me, this book was a good level of challenge for me to read. It pushed me a little bit, but not so much as to be overwhelming.

  2. This has been in my read list forever. I think I even got it from the same page (5 Arabic Books to Read..) you linked above.

    I renewed my Reading the World project now, thanks to you for the inspiration, I even use the same country list format 🙂

    • Yay! Going to go visit your list now!!

  3. I am glad you appreciated this book. I never really got into it. Even though I had heard it was excellent and important, I never saw why. Which may say more about me than the book.

    • That’s about how I feel The Story of Zahra which I just finished. I’ll be writing about its challenges soon. I think tastes differ and it is okay not to like books even if they are excellent and important.

      My guess of one reason that The Season of Migration to the North might be considered ‘important’ is that it is written by an African author who takes some of the most prominent writing by Europeans about Africans, Othello and The Heart of Darkness, and twists them around into reverse.

      • Good point. I am not aware European lit enough to see that.
        I had trouble with Zahra, too. I have thought about why. There are types of books that I know I don’t like and avoid, but then there are a few books like these. I like books about people who are different than I am in some ways–or I won’t read so globally. But I need to feel some point of connection with characters, and I just didn’t in these two books.

  4. Thanks for bringing us this wonderful book¡
    From my point of view, the novel centers on the crash between East and West, or precisely in wanting always to difference between these two banks, when often many people lives in both. The final focuses in that sense, where the protagonist swing to? to the South or to the North?. Perhaps the best would be to swing to where he thinks he will be happier knowing that he will always in the middle of many contradictions. It´s a book for who looks with only one eye and speak with only one language.

    • I had completely missed that he is between the north and the south banks! And then at the end he is caught somewhere between the two and shouting for help. That certainly gives me some new perspective on the ending, thank you for pointing it out!

  5. I love that you are also doing this project! I am going to have to follow you and get your recommendations. I just started this year and the finding recommendations part is really hard. I’m tired of hearing the same recommendations from certain countries. (I know this comment is so unrelated to your blog post, but I had to say it. Now that I did, I’m going to go around browsing your blog.) 🙂

    • I always enjoy finding more global readers and seeing what they are reading! There certainly are some countries (say Sao Tome and Principe) where there just aren’t a lot of options and pretty much everyone I know of who has tried to read a book from every country has read the same book.

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